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History ended Sunday for the Phoenix Mercury, as they will not be in the playoffs competing for a WNBA championship. Before we state the obvious, let’s take a look at Sunday’s game against the Dallas Wings that ultimately put the nail in the coffin of the Mercury and their tumultuous season.
It was Brittney Griner’s return to the hardwood for the first time in three games after a stint in the health and safety protocols. It was safe to say that the Phoenix Mercury looked like themselves again. Even though Diana Taurasi was sidelined with a left toe injury that’s been bothering her all season, the Mercury sought to defend the home floor. Their last three games without BG all resulted in losses.
There was a heavy reliance on the three point shot in those losses. When the New York Liberty came to town, the Mercury made four of their 23 threes. The following game against Indiana, they made three of their 22 threes. Then against Los Angeles, Phoenix made just three of their 13 three point shots. When the team announced that Griner was off the injury report, the mood switched. Before the game, Mercury forward Brianna Turner spoke on what the team needed to do to come out with a win.
“We’re ready to get a win, it’s been a minute,” Turner said. “This is our fourth time playing Dallas and we’re really familiar with them. We know they really emphasized boxing out and obviously I contained Arike (Ogunbowale). So I think we have a really good game plan in place and we’ve been focused the past few days to execute.”
Phoenix had an opportunity to secure its first win since August 10 against the Connecticut Sun. The up-and-down season has been a recurring theme for the team. After all, they dealt with a midseason coaching change, interim head coach Nikki Blue’s tenure, along with Taurasi’s 10,000 point celebration.
The focus certainly changed once Griner stepped on the floor. There was a different vibe during the pregame shootaround. An almost jovial energy was present for Griner’s return. Once the game started, it was all BG. Within the first four minutes, Griner knocked down two shots while being guarded by another big, Teaira McCowan.
Although McCowan continues to improve against the former first overall pick, Griner still has her number. By the end of the third quarter, Griner amassed 19 points and shot 75% from the field. The energy in Footprint Center gravitated toward a 10th win. Unfortunately, the Wings and Ogunbowale, specifically had other plans.
The former Notre Dame standout showed why she’s one of the best players in the league. She scored 10 of her team’s 22 points in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a momentum-shifting and-one over forward Michaela Onyenwere. Ogunbowale let out a primal scream, letting everyone in the building know that no one could guard her.
As the final seconds went down, Moriah Jefferson attempted to get her 21st, 22nd and 23rd points of the game on a three. When she shot it, the ball was wedged between the back of the iron and the backboard, a true definition of the 2023 Mercury season. Following the 77-74 loss and being eliminated from the playoff race, Blue described how the mentality of her squad isn’t changing anytime soon.
“It was a one possession game, we haven’t had those in a very long time,” Blue said. “The second thing is that we continue to fight. Once again, we were in a situation where we didn’t have some of our key players at the end of the game and that changed things up a bit. There are people in the game that aren’t used to playing down the stretch. But our team, they still continued to fight and we actually got a nice little shot at the end and just couldn’t hit it.”
During the game, another injury hit the Mercury right in the face. Sophie Cunningham had a chasedown block on center Kalani Brown and came out of it with a bloodied face. She left the game around the two minute mark with a jaw injury.
Injuries riddled Phoenix this season, with only four players being active for all 34 games. Although injuries are all too common in the WNBA, Blue stated that it doesn’t matter who is on the floor and gave her players some praise with what they’ve been through.
“Well, not having our best player is not new to us, it’s been something that’s been ongoing all season,” Blue said. “At times we’ve had, DT sometimes we haven’t, at times we had BG, sometimes we haven’t, Sophie, etc. I think everyone on our team pretty much has taken their share of not being available, besides a couple players.”
“Our players, they continue to keep fighting and I’m very, very, very proud of us for that. They show up every day and they work hard. You couldn’t tell that our record is what it is. In our practices, their morale, they’re cheerful, they’re eager to learn, they’re eager to play, they’re eager to compete. So that is probably the most positive thing that I could take from this game, that our team just continues to compete to the very end.”
Immediately following Blue was Jefferson and fellow guard, Sug Sutton. Jefferson, who isn’t accustomed to losing since her UConn days, expressed her honesty when talking about the frequent injuries throughout the season.
“Yeah, I mean, we’ve been through a lot this season with injuries and people going in and out and a new coaching staff,” Jefferson said. “I think, for us, we don’t like to make any excuses. Especially in games like tonight, I think we should have won that. But for us, it’s just about trying to get better every single game, no matter what’s thrown at us. We just have to keep pushing for it. So I think this year we got a lot closer and hopefully we can keep continuing to do that.”
Phoenix has six more games to try and gain some optimism heading into what can be a very eventful offseason. They have four more games on the road, starting on Tuesday against the Atlanta Dream where they’re looking to obtain their second win on the road all season and first under Blue.